'I've grown as a person': Williams moves on from disappointing end to 2021 season
PHOENIX -- One of the best setup men in baseball showed up to Spring Training with a new pitch and a clear head.
It was a long journey to this place for Devin Williams, the 2020 National League Reliever of the Year with the Bugs Bunny changeup. He should have been one of the Brewers’ most important weapons against the power-hitting Braves in last year’s National League Division Series. But Williams punched a wall and fractured his pitching hand the night Milwaukee clinched the NL Central, then watched the Brewers lose to the Braves from home.
“It was probably a good two months there where it was heavily on my mind,” said Williams, who reported to camp in full health after undergoing surgery to fix the fracture. “It’s hard not to think about it when I’m constantly doing rehab and stuff. Having to deal with the consequences of my actions, you know?
“I think I’ve grown as a person. It’s just one of those things that you go through, and I had to deal with it. Now I’m moving on.”
Williams’ teammates moved on as well, praising him at the time for standing before the team to apologize and explain what had happened. Williams couldn’t help but feel he would have helped against the Braves -- the Brewers lost a two-run lead in the fifth inning of Game 4 and then lost the game and the series on Freddie Freeman’s tie-breaking home run off Josh Hader in the eighth -- but with time, he has managed to let go of those thoughts.
“There’s nothing I can do now,” Williams said. “I can’t go back in time and change anything.”
So, he is looking forward to the potential of adding a cutter/slider to his current arsenal dominated by changeups (63.8% usage last season, per Statcast) and power fastballs (33.5%). Williams threw a slider in the Minor Leagues, but he abandoned the pitch once he arrived in the Majors in 2019 and found the baseballs had tighter seams that were more difficult to grip.
During his long winter, after two months of healing from surgery to install a metal plate in his right hand, he was intent on finding a way to make it work.
“It’s been a lot of trial and error,” Williams said. “Being a two-pitch guy can be limiting at times; you can kind of get boxed in, in certain counts. I think this gives me a little more wiggle room.”
Would he describe the pitch as more cutter or more slider?
“It depends,” Williams said. “Sometimes it’s a cutter, sometimes it’s a slider.”
The Brewers will let Williams tinker with the pitch during Spring Training and then make a collective decision at the end of Spring Training. A full camp is a bonus in itself; last year, Williams was limited after ending 2020 with a right shoulder injury.
“Physically, he’s in a great spot. He’s in a much better spot than we started last year with,” manager Craig Counsell said. “You can just see the way his bullpens have gone. He did PFP [pitchers’ fielding practice] after his bullpen and you can just see that it’s different. He’s full-go right now. And then yeah, any time we have tough experiences, those are also great learning experiences. No matter who you are. That’s the case for this one with Devin.”
Counsell said it was “normal” that Williams stewed over his mistake for a couple of months.
“And then there’s also some point,” Counsell said, “we have to get to a point of, ‘What good does beating myself up do?’ We all go through that when we make mistakes. That’s part of learning.”
Notably, Williams’ changeup is in midseason form. He worried about it after he broke his hand, since the changeup is a pitch based on touch and feel.
“You wonder if it’s going to be the same. But I think I’ve come out on the other side even better than I was before,” Williams said. “So, I’m pretty happy about where I’m at.”
He was asked what he meant by better than before.
Was he talking about pitching, or more than that?
“Both, you know?” Williams said. “It’s something that you take for what it is and you learn from it. Physically, as a pitcher, I feel like I’m in a better spot than I was last year. Coming into camp, I feel more confident with my fastball command and my changeup is there. Adding that third pitch, I’m excited to get to use that.”